Tag Archives: NGV

The future of culture

I was going to write a review of online exhibitions during the lockdown. Most had a note on their website saying that they were closed — “indefinitely’/temporary/for installation” due to COVID-19 virus. I had a little play with at the NGV’s online version of their Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition but that was like driving around an area using Google street view.

So I thought about it some more. The larger problem for art galleries is that contemporary visual art is still all about objects in a space. And not just any objects and not just any space; art objects in art spaces. It is a problem that they have brought on themselves by emphasising both the object and the space. If only they had considered more non-objective art outside of art space.

The commercial art galleries business model is to sell objects. So I blame, because they can change, the non-commercial galleries for not being progressive enough and following the art model sold by the commercial galleries. 

What happens when art leaves the physical space? What is the difference between the cultic object and the display? (see Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction section 5) What is the difference between loosing an object, like the Mona Lisa, in outer-space or at the bottom of the ocean, and not being able to remove an image of you posing naked with grandfather clock from the internet? Street artists and graffiti writers know something about the online social media display value of their art as distinct from the physical object.

And why are we still thinking about the arts? We should be more concerned with culture and not the arts, for culture is a larger set that includes the arts. Likewise, ‘culture worker’ is a broader category than ‘artist’ and ‘poet’ and all those other self-indulgent terms.

For culture is about people’s lives — Indigenous readers know what I’m talking about. Culture provides more of a sense of identity than a job, culture is what makes your life and work meaningful. Culture is not an industry and the value of culture can never be assessed in purely economic terms. While the arts industry can be seen as self-serving and little different from the adult entertainment industry; culture cannot. There are items of culture that are worth more than money, that should not be sold or does Uluru have a sales price? And after admitting that there are culturally significant objects that are outside of capitalist market forces, funding culture outside of a capitalist market is logical.

However, the small-minded, greedy, conservative people who run Australia cannot understand anything other dollars and bullets so currently there is no Minister for Culture in Australia and the arts is part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (no Oxford comma in the Ministry).

Now we have the time to change our minds and think about the bigger picture of culture.

Glenn Romanis, Stanley Street project

Several March Exhibitions

On Friday I went into Melbourne to see some exhibitions and street art. With increasing isolation looming, firstly due to the closure of my train line for Sky Rail construction, and the prospect of further isolation due to the pandemic, it might be my last chance to see some exhibitions for a few months.

A walk along Flinders Lane leads to less galleries than it did a decade ago.

Arc One had an exhibition of furniture made of leather part of Melbourne Design Week 2020, it was more like a shop than a gallery. It was “Partu” (the Walmajarri word for skin) by Johnny Nargoodah and Trent Jansen. Most of the pieces looked awkward and you could see the steel armature underneath the leathery contortions.

Fortyfive Downstairs had “Between Horizons” haunting sculptures in the shape of boats by Jan Learmonth and, “Microcosmographia” a group exhibition about animals.

Turning off Flinders Lane I walked down Hosier Lane and although it was less crowded without the Chinese tourists, I was surprised at how many people were still there. I was looking for the aftermath of the great fire-extinguisher spray performance event. You could still see it, high up on the walls, if you knew what to look for and where to look for it. Most of it has been repainted. Local writers are keen to inform the public about the effect that the shop, Culture Kings, is having on the lane’s culture. Culture Kings are the main offender but there are other advertisers with stencils who were exploiting the traffic in the lane. Everything is not a platform to advertise your product; there are more important things.

My main objective was to see the “Japanese Modernism” exhibition at the NGV International and but while I was at there I looked at the art book fair, an up-market and quality zine fair for people who love book design.

“Japanese Modernism” is not a large exhibition, just a large room, with men’s fashion on one side and women’s fashion on the other side. It is mostly design, rather than art, with some great examples of ephemera in the form tourist maps, magazines, make-up and music scores for the popular modern instruments harmonica and ukulele.

There was no shock of the new for Japan as the land already shaken by the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. And Japan adopted modernism with a confidence born from the fact that modernism was always a syncretic mix that included Japanese and European elements.


The scene: Haring & Basquiat

This to-do list by is  Keith Haring is a massive name drop even though mostly only first names are used: Whoopi, Jean Michel, Debbie … It is exhibited as part of the documentary part of the exhibition “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV. It shows the vibrant artistic scene that Haring and Basquiat inhabited.

The scene, the geographic-social environment that an artist lives and works in. The loose association that both inspires and documents them. Often appears as interesting as the artist themselves – Warhol’s Factory scene, the Dadaist or the Surrealists.

I wonder how the geographic-social environment contributes to an artist’s development and success or failure? How much their art is a product of a network of people talking, dancing and otherwise moving around (depending on the type of transport)?

Or is it all about the unique talent of the ‘great man’ independent from the city and its society? If it is all about the person then it is very surprising that two or more great artists, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, would emerge at the same time and place.

Even if it is unique talent of the individual that created it is the social environment that gives meaning to the art. Without the gay club scene Haring would not have created his dancing figures or his art about AIDS. Without his black identity Basquiat would not have attempted to write art history. These topics were not so much chosen by the artist as determined by the scene.

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were living in a particularly fertile art scene, that produced many other artists including the street artists, Jenny Holzer and Kenny Scharf. A self-selecting scene, volunteers who had congregated because they wanted to be artists and New York was the place to do it. It was a geographic and social circle that included various clubs, art galleries, flats and people from Madonna to William Burroughs.

The exhibition catalogue for “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” does much to document their scene. It has many interviews, including one with Jenny Holzer and Patti Astor. And a map of lower Manhattan shows the tight geography where everything was within walking distance or a few subway stops. (I can’t emphasis enough how important a walkable geography is to a vibrant arts scene.)

This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. See also Haring/Basquiat @NGV and Under the Influence (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition.)


Under the influence

“His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…”           William Burroughs Naked Lunch

Keith Haring Untitled 1983 © Keith Haring Foundation

Both Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were influenced by William Burroughs; their shared interest in semiotics and proximity in the NYC art scene made it almost inevitable that they would meet. Haring was a friend of Burroughs, the invite-Keith-around-to-dinner-kind of friend and collaborate on a couple of books, as opposed to a ‘Facebook friend’. So Burroughs influence on Haring is extensive from Haring’s distinctive hieroglyphic iconography to his, not well known, cut up collages and performance poetry.

‘Lick Fat Boys’ by Haring owes much to works, in film and audio, by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, e.g. “Recalling All Active Agents” In these works words are rearranged and reordered to create new meanings. Haring’s cut-up collages of text and images look very similar to Burroughs’s pages of cut-ups with collage elements.

“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV documents this influence; including a list of people from Basquiat with Burroughs along with Prince, David Lynch and Godard (Burroughs is misspelt ‘Burrows’).

Although the exhibition documents Burroughs influence it then ignores it continuing to ignore it when it comes to interpreting the work. It describes the personal computer headed centipedes in Haring’s paintings as “caterpillars”. It is not a correct description for several reasons. Centipedes are used in many of Burroughs’s novels including Naked Lunch as a symbol of self-centred evil whereas caterpillars are not used as symbols of evil in anyone’s iconography. Centipedes are distinguished by having one set of legs for each segment of body, which is what is shown in Haring’s images even though they and all species of centipede don’t have a hundred legs. Finally, caterpillars don’t walk, they crawl, grasping on with their prolegs to pull their body forward until it arches; an iconic movement not depicted by Haring.

Keith Haring Untitled 1982 © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring and Basquiat had an influence on Australian art, especially its street art. The walls that Haring painted are still visible in Melbourne (see my blog post). His simple style of line drawn figures is not inimitable but few do. There is only a couple of Melbourne street artist openly and obviously influenced by Haring – Ero and Civil. Although the influence of Haring, in particular his dogs, on the iconography of clothing manufacturer Mambo has yet to be fully explored; the first appearance of the Mambo’s farting dog occurred in 1984 the same year that Haring visited Australia.

The influence of Basquiat’s visual style is even wider and more varied; from the work of street-artists from Anthony Lister to many contemporary/non-street artists.

How important is influence? Influence has so often been seen as a positive attribute however each iteration of this style weakens the effect, until it becomes bland and ordinary.

Civil, detail of mural, Brunswick

This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. To read the first post. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs.)


Haring/Basquiat @ NGV

“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International is the world premiere exhibition bringing together two NYC artists from the 1980s. There are deeper connections than being in the same city, at the same time (both were raised Catholic and identified as men): both were known their work on the streets and for their drawn lines. Both are great artists who knew each other, drew each other, collaborated with each other. And yet are very different people and artists.

Recreation of Haring’s waterwall painting from 1984

“Crossing Lines” is a large exhibition with over 200 works by the two artists along with many documents, photographs and any other things that explain the NYC art scene that they inhabited. There are important major paintings from both artists are shown but it the early work that exhibition excels (at the same time causing it to jump around both artist’s short lives). For two artists with tragically short lives the exhibition does jump around in time a bit getting work to fit into themes.

It was great to see some very early work from off the street, including a panel where they both added their already iconic images: Haring’s dog and baby and Basquiat’s crown. There are more street art collaborations with Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddy and LAII.

detail of street work featuring both Haring and Basquiat

It is a big exhibition for artists two artists with limited iconographies but there is more variety that I expected. To accompany this variety there is a great variety of exhibition spaces, along with large and small, there is music and silence and types of light (the UV light room with fluorescent colours). It is an exhibition that I could dance to. What to do with the long corridors that connects the galleries is always a problem for the NGV curators but this time they make it work with videos and enlarged photos.

A small local complaint that there was no any mention of a Haring visit to Melbourne in 1984 and that his work is still on its walls. (See my blog post.) The stolen, and later returned, door with his iconic radiant baby from the wall of the Collingwood Tech was on exhibition but without any explanation.

I had a lot of fun at the exhibition and it has given me a lot to think about, bringing together thoughts that have been going around in my brain since the 1980s. So I will be writing a series of posts about it: under the influence. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs)

Exhibition wall with the door from the Collingwood Tech

+++

What ever happened to the idea of the neo-renaissance artist in the 1970s and 80s? The artist who worked across media a diverse as paint and film, music and fashion. It wasn’t just Haring and Basquiat who worked in art, fashion and music. There were multiple versions of this idea, the prime example being Andy Warhol as photographer, film maker and the Velvet Underground’s producer.

It is about a way of life rather than a professional approach. A hiphop/punk utopia with the total merger of art, politics and life; painting in the afternoon and spinning records at night. This diversity of practice is so different from many current contemporary artists who are often focused on a single media and subject.


Coz you’re a bore

When I saw the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 2000 I should have been paying more attention to “The Art of the Motorcycle”. The exhibition in the main hall was an exhibition of motorcycles, not modified or customised, just a showroom display. I thought that I was seeing the triumph of corporate design culture over art. Rather this is not about a capitulation of institutional gallery’s reputation that exposes their lack of any educational, aesthetic and moral integrity. The exhibition summed up the attitude of the institution; anything to get the corporate sponsorship, anything to get people through the door.

Different art galleries will tend to exhibit different types of art depending on their objective (see my post on types of art galleries). Some of the crypto-objective of the NGV are now more obvious from its choice of exhibitions — it is all about marketing.

The NGV exists as a high end venue, to sell fashion, market cars (it is the ultimate car showroom in Melbourne), and, most importantly, to be a tourist attraction for the city. The infotainment in a spectacular location to be rented out for corporate and wedding receptions. As such it is little different from the MCG or Flemington Race Course.

The visual arts, like music, is a vast field of styles, techniques and purposes in which there is everything from advertising jingles to some of best things made by humans. There are works that are very popular and make large amounts of money. There are works that can help sell products or make someone look majestic or simply display wealth. High end art can be a manufactured product, the twenty-first century equivalent to handmade lace, very expensive and serving no purpose other than decoration and status. And without political and critical thought the artist remains a decorator for plutocrats.

Granted that there are decorators for plutocrats but that doesn’t mean that they should be exhibited at the NGV or that I should bother to write about them. Selling a lot of product for a lot of money should not be the entry qualification.

I don’t write about art because it is popular or expensive but because there is something worth writing about. So I won’t be writing about any of David Bromley’s, Ken Done’s or KAWS exhibitions. There are a lot of artists whose exhibitions I won’t bother to even attend because the content, aesthetics, style and meaning of their art is so obvious that it bores me. I understand that it doesn’t bore everyone and that some people might want it. However, just because there are is a lot of fans or a lot of money doesn’t make the art any more interesting.


Reko and Turbo, from the street to the NGV

“From Bark to Neon: Indigenous Art from the NGV Collection” at the NGV in Federation Square includes works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Emily Kam Kngwarray in the collection. But I want to focus on two local artists in the exhibition who both have street backgrounds: Reko Rennie and Trevor Turbo Brown.

Blek le Rat, Reko Rennie, Drew Funk, Reko Rennie et. al. in Hoiser Lane & on the internet.

Part of their street background both embraced one of the four elements of hip hop; for Reko it was writing graffiti and for Turbo, breakdancing.

Reko Rennie has a neon crown in his Regalia 2013; as in crown that a top graffiti writer would put a crown above their tag. I first saw his work at the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2008, a magnificent multi-layer stencil of a red kangaroo. Later I saw the same stencil sprayed on a wall in Hosier Lane alongside Blek Le Rat and Stormie Mills. I didn’t know that he was Kamilaroi all I knew is that he was amongst the best street artists in Melbourne. Many street artists were later represented by commercial art galleries but Reko Rennie navigated this transition better than most. In a few years he had work in the NGV’s collection was making public art. Rennie’s public art includes his Neon Natives, 2011 in Cocker Alley for the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions and his Murri Totems, 2012 outside of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science building.

Trevor Turbo Brown, Getting their photo taken by tourists, 2007

The late Trevor Turbo Brown was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. Turbo was a self-taught, outsider artist who had multiple disadvantages amongst them homelessness and an intellectual disability. Turbo had a clear relationship to the street. He got his nickname, ‘Turbo’ breakdancing on the streets in the 1980s and 90s. One day I ran into him Brunswick trying to sell his art. The NGV has three new acquisitions of Turbo’s paintings on exhibition; they acquired some of the best Turbo paintings that I’ve seen, there is a genuine sense of humour his dingos smiling and photobombing for the tourists. Dingos were very significant to Turbo for many reasons.

Hip hop and the street are now part of the greater cultural mix that influences urban Indigenous art in Melbourne.


%d bloggers like this: